CHAPTER V.

BEFORE THE STORM.

March to April, 1915.



    OUR rest-time at Estaires at the end of March was a delightful period of good fellowship. The beautiful early spring was beginning to assert its power over nature. The grass was green. The trees and hedgerows were full of sap and the buds ready to burst into new life. As one walked down the roads in the bright sunshine, and smelt the fresh winds bearing the scent of springtime, an exquisite feeling of delight filled the soul. Birds were singing in the sky, and it was pitiful to think that any other thoughts but those of rapture at the joy of living should ever cross the mind.
    A sergeant found me a comfortable billet in a house near the Church. A dear old man and his two venerable daughters were the only occupants. Like all the French people we met, their little home was to them a source of endless joy. Everything was bright and clean, and they took great pleasure in showing off its beauties. There was a large room with glass roof and sides, like a conservatory. On the wall was the fresco of a landscape, drawn by some strolling artist, which gave my hosts infinite delight. There was a river flowing out of some very green woods, with a brilliant blue sky overhead. We used to sit on chairs opposite and discuss the woodland scene, and I must say it brought back memories to me of many a Canadian brook and the charming home life of Canadian woods, from which, as it seemed then, we were likely to be cut off forever.
    The Bishop of London paid a visit to our men, and addressed them from the steps of the Town Hall in the Grande Place. The officers and men were charmed with his personality.
    
It was a joy to me that we were to spend Easter at such a convenient place. On Good Friday afternoon we had a voluntary service in front of the Town Hall. It seemed very fitting that these men who had come in the spirit of self-sacrifice, should be invited to contemplate, for at least an hour, the great world sacrifice of Calvary. A table was brought out from an estaminet nearby and placed in front of the steps. I mounted on this and so was [Page 48] able to address the crowd which soon assembled there. We sang some of the Good Friday hymns, “When I survey the wondrous Cross,” and “Jesu, Lover of my Soul.” There must have been several hundred present. I remember specially the faces of several who were themselves called upon within a few weeks to make the supreme sacrifice. Like almost all other religious services at the front, this one had to struggle with the exigencies of war. A stream of lorries at the side of the Grande Place and the noisy motor cycles of despatch riders made an accompaniment to the address which rendered both speaking and hearing difficult.
    Easter Day rose bright and clear. I had a hall situated down a narrow lane, which had been used as a cinema. There was a platform at one end and facing it, rows of benches. On the platform I arranged the altar, with the silk Union Jack as the frontal and with cross and lighted candles for ornaments. It looked bright and church-like amid the sordid surroundings. We had several celebrations of the Holy Communion, the first being at six a.m. A large number of officers and men came to perform their Easter duties. A strange solemnity prevailed. It was the first Easter spent away from home; it was the last Easter that most of those gallant young souls spent on earth. The other chaplains had equally large attendances. We sang the Easter hymn at each service, and the music more than anything else carried us back to the days that were.
    But our stay in Estaires was only for a time, and soon orders came that we were to move. On April 7th, a bright and lovely spring morning, the whole Division began its fateful journey to Ypres and marched off to Cassel, about thirty miles behind the Salient. The men were in good spirits, and by this time were becoming accustomed to the pavé roads. We passed through Caestre, where I saw my old friends, the Mayor and Mayoress. That afternoon I was taken by two British officers to the little hotel in Cassel for luncheon. The extensive view over the country from the windows reminded me of dear old Quebec. After luncheon my friends motored me to Ypres. The city at that time had not been heavily shelled, except the Cloth Hall and Cathedral. The shops around the square were still carrying on their business and people there were selling post-cards and other small articles. We went into the Cathedral, which had been badly damaged. The roof was more or less intact and the altar and pulpit in their [Page 49] places. I saw what an impressive place it must have been. The Cloth Hall had been burnt, but the beautiful stone façade was still undamaged. A fire engine and horses were quartered under the central tower. There was a quiet air of light and beauty in the quaint old buildings that suggested the medieval prosperity of the city. Behind the better class of houses there were the usual gardens, laid out with taste, and often containing fountains and rustic bridges. The French and the Belgians delighted in striving to make a landscape garden in the small area at their command.
    I shall always be thankful that I had the opportunity of paying this visit to Ypres while it still retained vestiges of its former beauty. Dark and hideous dreams of drives on ambulances in the midnight hours haunt me now when the name of Ypres is mentioned. I hear the rattle of lorries and motorcycles and the tramp of horses on the cobblestones. The grim ruins on either side of the road stand out hard and somber in the dim light of the starry sky. There is the passing of innumerable men and the danger of the traffic-crowded streets. But Ypres, as I saw it then, was full of beauty touched with the sadness of the coming ruin.
    In the afternoon, I motored back to our brigade on the outskirts of Cassel. After dinner I started off to find my new billet. As usual I lost my way. I went off down the country roads. The farms were silent and dark. There was no one to tell me where my battalion was. I must have gone a long distance in the many detours I made. The country was still a place of mystery to me, and “The little owls that hoot and call” seemed to be the voice of the night itself. The roads were winding and lonely and the air was full of the pleasant odours of the spring fields. It was getting very late and I despaired of finding a roof under which to spend the night. I determined to walk back to the nearest village. As I had marched with the men that day all the way from Estaires, a distance of about twenty miles, I was quite reasonably tired and anxious to get a bed. I got back to the main road which leads to St. Sylvestre. On approaching the little village I was halted by a British sentry who was mounting guard over a line of Army Service Corps lorries. I went on and encountered more sentries till I stood in the town itself and made my difficulty known to a soldier who was passing. I asked him if he knew [Page 50] where I could get a lodging for the night. He told me that some officers had their headquarters in the Curé’s house, and that if I were to knock at the door, very probably I could find a room in which to stay. I went to the house which was pointed out to me and knocked. There was a light in a window upstairs so I knew that my knocking would be heard. Presently a voice called out from the hollow passage and asked me to open the door and come in. I did so, and in the dim light saw at the end of the hall a white figure which was barely distinguishable and which I took to be the individual who had spoken to me. Consequently I addressed my conversation to it. The shadowy form asked me what I wanted and I explained that I had lost my way and asked where the headquarters of my battalion were. The being replied that it did not know but invited me to come in and spend the night. At that moment somebody from the upstairs region came with an electric torch, and the light lit up the empty hall. To my surprise I found that I had been addressing my conversation to the life-sized statue of some saint which was standing on a pedestal at the foot of the stairs. I rather mystified my host by saying that I had been talking to the image in the hall. However, in spite of this, he asked me to come upstairs where he would give me a bed. By this time several of the British officers who occupied the upper flat had become interested in the arrival of the midnight visitor, and were looking over the banisters. I can remember feeling that my only chance of receiving hospitality depended on my presenting a respectable appearance. I was on my best behaviour. It was greatly to my confusion, therefore, as I walked upstairs under the inspection of those of the upper flat, that I stumbled on the narrow steps. In order to reassure my would-be friends, I called out, “Don’t be alarmed, I am a chaplain and a teetotaler.” They burst out laughing and on my arrival at the top greeted me very heartily. I was taken into a long bedroom where there were five beds in a row, one of which was assigned to me. Not only was I given a bed, but one of their servants went and brought me a hot-cross bun and a glass of milk. In return for such wholehearted and magnificent hospitality, I sat on the edge of the bed and recited poems to my hosts, who at that hour of the morning were not averse to anything which might be conducive to sleep. On the next day I was made an honorary member of their mess. I should like to bear testimony here that the extraordinary [Page 51] cordiality and kind hospitality which was always shown to us by British officers.
    Later on in the day, I found the 13th Battalion just a few miles outside Cassel at a place called Terdeghem. It was a quaint little village with an interesting church. I got a billet in a farmhouse. It was a curious building of brick and stood on the road where a little gate opened into a delightful garden, full of old fashioned flowers. My room was reached by a flight of steps from the kitchen and was very comfortable. I disliked, however, the heavy fluffy bed. Murdoch MacDonald used to sleep in the kitchen.
    There were some charming walks around Terdeghem. One which I liked to take led to a very old and picturesque chateau, surrounded by a moat. I was immensely impressed with the rows of high trees on which the rooks built their nosy cities. Sometimes a double line of these trees, like an avenue, would stretch across a field. Often, as I have walked home in the dark after parish visiting, I have stood between the long rows of trees and listened to the wind sighing through their bare branches and looked up at the stars that “were tangled in them.” Then the dread mystery of war and fate and destruction would come over me. It was a relief to think how comfortable and unconcerned the rooks were in their nests with their children about them in bed. They had wings too wherewith to fly away and be at rest.
    Cassel was used at that time by the French Army, so we were excluded from it unless we had a special permit. It was a delightful old town, and from its commanding position on a rock has been used as a fortress more or less since the days of Julius Caesar. The Grand Place is delightful and quaint. From it, through various archways, one looks down upon the rich verdure of the fields that stretch far off into the distance.
    We had a parade of our four battalions one day, when General Smith-Dorrien came to inspect us. The place chosen was a green slope not far from the entrance to the town. The General reviewed the men, and then gave a talk to the officers. As far as I can recollect, he was most sanguine about the speedy termination of the war. He told us that all we had to do was to keep worrying the Germans, and that the final crushing stroke would be given on the east by the Russians. He also told us that to us was assigned the place of honour on the extreme left of the British line next to [Page 52] the French Colonial troops. I overheard an irreverent officer near me say, “Damn the place of honour,” and I thought of Sam Hughes and his warning about not objecting to swearing. The General, whom I had met before, asked me to walk with him up to his car and then said, “I have had reports about the Canadian Artillery, and I am delighted at their efficiency. I have also heard the best accounts of the Infantry, but do you think, in the event of a sudden onslaught by the Germans, that the Canadians will hold their ground? They are untried troops.” I told him that I was sure that one thing the Canadians would do would be to hold on. Before a fortnight had passed, in the awful struggle near Langemarcke, the Canadians proved their ability to hold their ground.
    Shortly after the Genaral’s visit we were ordered to move, and by some oversight on Murdoch MacDonald’s part, my kit was not ready in time to be taken by the Brigade transport. In consequence, to my dismay, I saw the men march off from Terdeghem to parts unknown, and found myself seated on my kit by the wayside with no apparent hope of following. I administered a rebuke to Murdoch as sternly as was consistent with the position of a chaplain, and then asked him to see if he could find any sort of vehicle at all to carry my stuff off in the direction towards which the battalion had marched. I must say I felt very lonely and a “bit out of it,” as I sat by the wayside wondering if I had lost the Brigade for good. In the meantime, Murdoch scoured the village for a horse and carriage. Suddenly, to my surprise, a despatch rider on a motorcycle came down the road and stopped and asked me if I knew where Canon Scott was. I said, “I’m the man,” and he handed me a letter. It turned out to be one from General Smith-Dorrien, asking me to allow him to send a poem which I had written, called “On the Rue du Bois” to “The Times.” It was such a kind friendly letter that at once it dispelled my sense of loneliness, and when Murdoch arrived and told me that there was not a horse in the place at my disposal, I replied that I did not mind so much now since I had the British General for a friend. I left Murdoch to guard my goods and chattels and went off myself down the road to the old Chateau and farmhouse. There I was lucky enough to obtain a cart with three wheels. It was an extremely long and heavily built vehicle and looked as if it dated from the 17th century. The horse that was put into it looked as if it had been born about the same period. The old man who [Page 53] held the solitary rein and sat over the third wheel under the bow looked to be of almost equal antiquity. It must have been about thirty feet from the tip of the old horse’s nose to the end of the cart. However I was glad to get any means of transportation at all, so I followed the thing to the road where my kit was waiting, Murdoch MacDonald put all my worldly possessions on the equipage. They seemed to occupy very little room in the huge structure. Murdoch, shouldering his rifle, followed it, and I, rather ashamed of the grotesque appearance of my caravan, marched on as quickly as I could in front, hoping to escape the ridicule which I knew would be heaped upon me by all ranks of my beloved brigade. A man we met told us that the battalion had gone to Steenvoorde, so thither we made our way. On our arrival I was taken to the Chateau and kindly treated by the laird and his family, who allowed me to spread out my bed-roll on the dining room floor.
    On the following morning an Imperial officer very kindly took me and my kit to Ypres. There at the end of Yser Canal, I found a pleasant billet in a large house belonging to a Mr.Vandervyver, who, with his mother, gave me a kind reception and a most comfortably furnished room. Later on, the units of our brigade arrived and I marched up with the 14th Battalion to the village of Wieltje. Over it, though we knew it not, hung the gloom of impending tragedy. Around it now cluster memories of the bitter price in blood and anguish which we were soon called upon to pay for the overthrow of tyranny. It was a lovely spring evening when we arrived, and the men were able to sit down on the green grass and have their supper before going into the trenches by St. Julien. I walked back down that memorable road which two years later I travelled for the last time on my return from Paschendaele. The great sunset lit the sky with beautiful colours. The rows of trees along that fateful way were ready to burst into new life. The air was fresh and invigorating. To the south, lay the hill which is known to the world as Hill 60, afterwards the scene of such bitter fighting. Before me in the distance, soft and mellow in the evening light, rose the towers and spires of Ypres—Ypres! the very name sends a strange thrill through the heart. For all time, the word will stand as a symbol for brutal assaults and ruthless destruction on the one hand and heroic resolve and dogged resistance on the other. On any grim monument raised to the Demon of War, the sole word “YPRES” would be a sufficient and fitting inscription. [Page 54]